Lessons Learned in Small-Scale Wheat Harvest, Part II: Threshing, Storing, and Grinding

This year we harvested a tenth of an acre of modern red winter wheat from our neighbor’s field. I wrote up a few impressions soon after harvesting the wheat in a previous blog post, but here I hope to summarize more technical aspects of this process and suggestions for myself and others who hope to grow and harvest their own wheat by hand.

Threshing Methods

Threshing is removing the wheat berries from the stalk and chaff. It is traditionally one of the most labor- and time-intensive parts of hand grain harvesting. Threshing was a winter task, when little else was happening on the farm.

Try traditional methods such as treading and flailing. The earliest threshing tools were feet. The heads of grain were laid out on a swept patio and people walked over the stalks and heads to free the kernels. Then oxen and other animals were walked in circles over the heads to do the same task, sometimes dragging a threshing sledge behind them. The flail was another early threshing tool. It is a heavy beater attached to the end of a pole. It is used like a whip to knock the berries out of the heads. It’s worth a try, because they cost little. I tried it over a clean tarp I keep for just this purpose.

Try some other methods. Some new methods have emerged more recently and are worth a try. The simplest is using a tub to thrash sheaves against the sides to knock the heads free. Another is a pedal powered thresher, which has a drum of fingers that pull the seeds right off the stalk — unfortunately these are easier to find in “developing” countries. Another option is to create a small thresher in a 5-gal bucket with a drill: chains are attached to the end of a long rod, which is fastened to the drill and spins in the bucket to loosen the heads. And then you could go the route I did, which is building a bicycle powered thresher (mine can also be motor-driven).

Pick a thresher that fits your scale. If your field can be measured in square feet, banging the heads in a tub is probably sufficient. If you are getting up to a fraction of an acre, you’ll want to invest in something that is at least pedal or small-motor powered, or at least get well practiced with the flail.

Storage Considerations

Dry and secure are the names of the game. Both after harvest and threshing, grain must be protected from moisture and rodents. In the ancient world, this was done with cats. Terriers were also bred to keep rats out of granaries. We have different options.

Keep grain sheaves elevated. If you can build a platform as described here, you might be able to keep rodents off your sheaves of grain before they’re threshed. This is based on “mushroom stones” used to elevate hay ricks. First, place six five-gallon buckets in a grid measuring 6 ft by 6 ft. Then set two sheets of plywood over the buckets such that no bucket is within 2 ft of any side, leaving you with an 8-ft-by-8-ft platform. Stack your sheaves on this, starting in the middle. This should keep rats or mice from gaining access.

Set traps and check them regularly. Do not use poison, as a rat or mouse may have burrowed into somewhere near or in the grain to die. Use snap traps or other means to capture mice or rats that are attracted by the grain.

Clean, clean, clean your equipment and space. Every time you thresh, winnow, grind, or visit your grain and work area, make sure to sweep, wipe down, and/or vacuum the equipment, especially threshers, grinders, and floors. The reason is threefold. First, by cleaning after working, you remove the loose grain and chaff that will attract rodents. Second, if you clean regularly, you’ll see if new mouse or rat droppings have accumulated since the last cleaning, alerting you to potential infestation. Third, when dealing with food-production equipment, it is just good practice.

Ensure your grain is dry and keep it that way. Obviously where you store your sheaves should be under cover: a garage or barn for example (a house is possible, but may bring rats or mice into your living space). We should be aiming for wheat berries with 14 percent or less moisture. To test this, weigh out 100 g (or 3.0 oz) of just-ground wheat berries and then put them in an oven at 240°F for an hour. Weigh again after baking and divide the dry weight by the wet. If you used the round numbers above, it should weigh 86 g (or 2.6 oz) or more (that is, the moisture was 14 percent or less of the total weight).

Only grind what you need. Whole-grain flour has all the constituent parts of the wheat berries, including oils, bran, and germ. If left unrefrigerated for a few weeks, whole-grain flour will go rancid. I don’t bother to put it in the ‘fridge for space considerations, which means I’m grinding two-weeks-worth of flour every fortnight.

Grinding and Baking Lessons

I’m still learning about grinding and baking with this flour. Admittedly, because I harvested modern wheat when it was fully ripe, I’m dealing with much more bran than heritage wheat.

Harvest early to avoid too much bran formation. The exterior shell of the wheat berry is the bran and develops and hardens significantly if it the grain is dried on the stalk in the field. If harvested two weeks earlier, as mentioned above, the bran is not fully developed and therefore less of an issue when grinding.

Grind slow and cool. Part of grinding wheat berries at home is getting to enjoy the oils and other parts of the whole grain. If the grinder heats up, some of those oils can boil off, so a slower, cooler grind is preferable.

Sift and then sift again. Give yourself some options by sifting the ground wheat. I have a coarse sieve made of window screen right off the grinder. This gets the larger bran bits (and can be used to separate corn scratch when grinding cornmeal) as the flour is ground. These large pieces of bran go into the chicken feed. Then, before I bake, I sift out with a much finer sieve to get something closer to white flour. This gives me two grades of flour with which I bake. The finer bran sifted out at this stage goes into granola bars, bran muffins, and other baking projects.

Soak that whole grain flour. Bread is held together by gluten — think of it as elastic bands. Bran, created when the berry is ground, acts like shards of glass next to the elastic gluten. Too much bran will cut up the gluten and cause your loaf to fall apart. One solution is to let the flour soak before kneading. Twenty minutes ought to do it: mix your ingredients and let them sit. Or, better yet, build the soak longer by making a sponge. On the day before I bake (or that morning), I soak the bran-heavy bread with 100 percent water (that means equal parts water and flour) with 25 percent (one quarter the weight of the flour) sourdough starter. This stands for eight to twelve hours and then add in the most-sifted flour, usually about as much as I originally weighed out in the first flour.

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